Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a type of anxiety disorder triggered by a traumatic experience. How are cannabis and PTSD linked? The answers may surprise you.
Many associate PTSD with a soldier who has been in combat. But the cause of PTSD can range from experiencing physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, whether as a child or adult, or surviving a natural disaster, tragic accident, terrorist event, or violence. Emergency responders working at the site of a disaster, or someone who experiences the sudden death of a loved one are also common causes of PTSD.
What Happens When You Have PTSD?
PTSD is a chronic elevation of stress hormones that can impact nearly every single system in the body. After a traumatic event, patients experiencing PTSD might feel emotional numbing, detachment, or absence. Depersonalization also occurs often in PTSD, as well as a reduction in the awareness of the person’s surroundings, leading to brain fog.
PTSD may also come with nightmares and flashbacks to the event. Sleep disruption can also lead to mood swings, aggression, or anxiety. PTSD patients may obsess about fears associated with specific activities or thoughts, feelings, or places reminiscent of the trauma. They may feel numb, depressed, and have suicidal thoughts. PTSD can further manifest in physical symptoms. Headaches, stomach pain or cramping, appetite changes, muscle aches, and back pain are common symptoms.
The amygdala, the part of the brain which affects memory, decision making, and emotional responses, gets triggered by stressful events. We produce chemical responses that trigger our fight or flight systems so that we may survive the potentially life-threatening event. When the stressful event is over, the adrenal response is supposed to turn off and the body returns to homeostasis.
The hippocampus, another part of the brain structure, is supposed to put bad memories into long-term storage so they’re not bothering us anymore. With PTSD, this process is impaired. The brain volume of the amygdala is reduced. And the hippocampus, which regulates memory navigation, also exhibits a reduction in activity.
How Can Medical Marijuana Help PTSD?
Medical marijuana is thought to be a potential mental health treatment to ease anxiety in patients who suffer from PTSD. Cannabis doesn’t cure PTSD, but it can help to treat symptoms so that the patient can better focus on therapy to treat their mental health.
A new study funded by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment found that PTSD sufferers who used cannabis saw greater reductions in their PTSD symptoms. They were 2.57 times more likely to recover from PTSD during the study than those who weren’t using cannabis. Given the increasing use of cannabis for PTSD, especially in states where it is legal (like Colorado), it’s important to understand whether it is actually able to offer improvements for PTSD patients.
Beyond symptom reduction, the study found that those using cannabis were more than 2.5 times more likely to no longer have PTSD after the conclusion of the study. This suggests that cannabis may do more than just dampen symptoms. Researchers believe cannabis could actually facilitate healing from the trauma that caused PTSD. The researchers implore that there needs to be further studying into how cannabis impacts the brain, memory, and stress response. Further studies also need to be done on the types of cannabis that PTSD patients are actually using to determine whether the form of administration plays a part in treatment outcomes.
Cannabis, PTSD, and Dreams
Research theorizes links between cannabis and dreaming, but more studies are needed to establish a clear connection between the two. A 2008 review correlated cannabis consumption with decreased REM sleep, leading to the discovery of one therapeutic benefit to cannabis’s dream suppression: fewer nightmares. Nightmares are a common recurring symptom of PTSD, and can interrupt a restful night of sleep. One PTSD patient reported to Leafly that he gets flashback nightmares and night terrors, and medical marijuana either keeps them away or keeps him from remembering the dreams when he awakes.
Can THC Make PTSD Worse?
The dream-dulling effects of cannabis are thought to help PTSD, at least temporarily. Despite theories about REM’s importance in processing information and emotions, the amount of REM sleep you get doesn’t appear to affect waking behavior. However, research has established a link between REM sleep and information and skill retention. So diminished REM sleep could lead to some cognitive impairments. Whether or not these impairments have long-term implications remains to be seen.
THC-heavy medical marijuana may enhance some symptoms associated with PTSD, making the condition worse in some people. The amount of THC has increased in the past several years as growers develop new strains to fight intense pain for critically ill patient. So it’s important to keep in mind that the more THC you take, the more likely it is to increase symptoms of anxiety and paranoia.
THC versus CBD
By taking THC, you may decrease the time it takes to fall asleep (sleep latency). However, this may impair your sleep quality over the long term by suppressing your slow-wave sleep.
Preliminary research suggests that CBD may have a greater impact on enhancing sleep in those with PTSD. In a review of studies done between 1972 and 1981, researchers found that the subjects with insomnia who were given CBD reported significantly more sleep than those who were given a placebo, along with much less dream recall.
In one recent study, researchers set out to determine the benefit of CBD for patients with PTSD. At the end of the eight week observation period, 91 percent of the patients reported a symptom severity decrease. CBD also brought relief to a subset of patients who were suffering from frequent nightmares. Researchers also noted that the CBD was well-tolerated.
Recent MedicateOH PTSD Articles
If you’d like to discover more about the cause of PTSD for you or a loved one, check out some of our other recent articles on the topic:
Questions about cannabis and PTSD? Reach out to us at medicateOH@gmail.com to talk with our knowledgeable staff.
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Medicate OH’s Founder and Publisher is a native of Cincinnati, Ohio and holds an undergraduate degree in journalism and a master’s degree in public administration, both from Northern Kentucky University. She has more than 20 years of experience writing and editing professionally for the medical and wellness industries, including positions with The Journal of Pediatrics, Livestrong, The Cincinnati Enquirer, and Patient Pop.
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